In yesterday’s article, we saw how champions draft. Super Bowl winners don’t take running backs, tight ends, or receivers in the first round, they take defensive players or offensive linemen and, when they have a chance, a quarterback.
The reason isn’t because there aren’t productive backs and receivers to be had in the first round (Ezekiel Elliott proved that there are), but because you can also get them later. There’s an abundance of them for a number of reasons.
Some of these reasons can be traced back to when these guys first started playing football. When a bunch of seven year-old kids play football at the park, the best athletes want to score touchdowns. They play running back and wide receiver and by the time they go to a big Florida school, that’s what they’re still doing. Overbearing football dads push their kids to be at the visible positions where their children’s little egos can get all the positive reinforcement they can handle.
Participation trophies aren’t enough – I’ve faced some youth coaches that call a timeout with one second left when they’re winning by multiple scores because they want to get another touchdown for one of their kids. This sends kids the message that scoring is king. None of those coaches called a timeout when they were on defense because they wanted to get one of their players another sack.
This doesn’t stop at Pop Warner. When kids get to high school, they know that touchdowns get scholarships. When they’re in college, the programs push offense – it sells tickets, it gets the alumni all riled up and donating (hooray for boosters). These guys get the girls – the head cheerleader is never checking out the left guard’s foot leverage. “Oooh girl, did you see my man’s anchor technique when he stonewalled that swim move?” No, the girls want Touchdown Boy.
At all these stages, top athletes gravitate towards and are pushed to play offense. There are no jokes that call a wide receiver a cornerback who can catch. But a wide receiver who can’t catch is called a cornerback. Just look at Sam Shields. He had all the skills and ability to be a top-10 corner in the NFL, but because of his crazy athleticism, he was given nearly unlimited chances to be a wide receiver, even though he couldn’t really do it. He only played cornerback for his final season and it was as a last resort, having exhausted every chance to play offense.
Backs, receivers, tight ends, there’s plenty of them. Not only is there an abundance of those guys, there’s a scarcity of the others and it’s not just the reciprocal effect.
Defense is different. If you have an uber-athlete, you can usually teach them to be a wide receiver – just look at how many played basketball. Athletes can be receivers whether they are 6’4″ 240 like Brandon Marshall or they’re 5’9″ like me and Steve Smith. No one Steve Smith’s size is going to survive playing in the box of any NFL defense. Plus, it’s easy to teach athletes to take the ball and run away from defenders, it’s a very natural thing.
It’s a different story if you want to teach your kid to play defense. You can teach a kid the proper tackling form, but you can’t teach them aggression (I won’t go deep into how kids from rough backgrounds make it to the NFL as star defenders, but it also helps explain – though not excuse – why many of them commit violent crimes).
To play defense in the NFL, especially on the front seven, you have to have a nastiness inside you. If you don’t have that part of your personality, in the open or hiding somewhere deep inside that can come out on the field, you will get your #ss run over and never make it past high school JV.
Offensive linemen are different, too. They are guardians, but dealing in the trenches, they need to be every bit as nasty they guys across from them. TJ Lang is friendly and jovial on his radio show, but he’s a different guy when he’s got the pads on, battling Ndamukong Suh.
That’s not what makes offensive lineman so rare and hard to find, though. Neither is possessing both the the agility and footwork to be keep pace with edge rushers like Clay Matthews along with the power to absorb a bull rush from Nick Perry. No, the really hard thing is that these guys need to be 6’5″ 310 to be at the top of this game. No matter how good your footwork and hand placement is, no matter how much time you spend in the weight room or how many steroids you do, you have very little control over being able to be the size necessary to play o-line in the NFL. When you add in all the other requirements, it’s clear why these guys are so rare and get drafted first.
Quarterback is its own animal altogether. These guys are definitely not a dime a dozen. Teams literally spend decades, burning through first round picks like the Falcons blow through a Super Bowl lead, trying to find one quarterback good enough to even get their team to the playoffs (how spoiled Packer fans are is another topic altogether).
QBs don’t just have to be tall enough to see a play unfold over their 6’6″ offensive lineman, and have a cannon to chuck it sixty yards, with the accuracy to drop it in a basket on a receiver with one foot of separation, at a full range of 180 degrees across the field, but they also need the athleticism to evade JJ Watt and the fortitude of will to do all that in a tight chaotic pocket while three hundred pounders running 4.9 forties are trying to plant their helmet into their spine.
It’s harder than it sounds.
When you step back and look at all the factors that go into it, it’s clear why there are fewer options on defense, offensive line, and quarterback. So it just makes sense to draft them first. The Packers have the best quarterback in the game and have developed a fantastic offensive line, so they have drafted defense first for most of recent history.
Now we just need those guys to step up.